A capsule bearing soil from an asteroid situated 200 million miles from Earth landed in Utah at 8:52 am Mountain time Sunday, bringing with it — scientists hope — details about the origin of life.
The NASA spacecraft OSIRIS-REx, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Useful resource Identification, Safety-Regolith Explorer, delivered a pattern of fabric from the asteroid Bennu. The house rock is estimated to be round 4.5 billion years outdated — that means it fashioned across the similar time because the photo voltaic system and certain holds pre-solar materials, in addition to amino acids, the constructing blocks of life.
Seven years after its preliminary launch, OSIRIS-REx deposited the capsule of uncontaminated materials from Bennu to the Division of Protection’s Utah Take a look at and Coaching Vary, about 80 miles from Salt Lake Metropolis, earlier than heading off on one other mission, this time to the near-Earth asteroid Apophis.
What Bennu can inform us about a few of life’s largest questions
After the pattern landed, the OSIRIS-REx workforce linked it to a 100-foot cable dangling from a helicopter for transport to a brief clear room free from contaminants within the Earth’s environment, the place it will likely be preserved with nitrogen after which transported to Johnson Area Heart in Houston.
Elements of the pattern will then be shipped to different analysis labs, and a few may even be preserved for future generations of scientists to review — just like how right this moment’s researchers nonetheless examine samples of fabric from the moon introduced again a long time in the past on Apollo 11, humanity’s first moon touchdown.
Researchers imagine that materials from asteroids like Bennu deposited compounds resembling amino acids on Earth earlier than life existed on this planet, Philipp Heck, senior director of analysis and curator of meteoritics and polar research at Chicago’s Discipline Museum, informed Vox. “We hope the Bennu samples will assist us handle the query, ‘Which constructing blocks had been delivered by meteorites?’”
Even additional again, Bennu may inform scientists about how planets, together with Earth, fashioned within the first place. “Asteroids are [leftover] rocky materials from the time of the photo voltaic system formation. They’re the preliminary bricks that constructed the planets,” Fred Jourdan, a planetary scientist at Curtin College in Perth, Australia, informed Area.com in July.
The asteroid pattern — referred to as a regolith — is the primary ever introduced again to Earth by a US workforce. Japan’s house company led a mission that returned a pattern from the asteroid Ryugu in 2020, which yielded vital scientific info however was pretty small, limiting its utility. The Bennu pattern is between 5.26 and 12.34 ounces (149 to 350 grams), scientists estimated from monitoring the gathering mechanism aboard the spacecraft.
That might be sufficient not just for right this moment’s cosmochemists to review the make-up of Bennu, but in addition for scientists for years and even a long time to return, who might be “in a position to handle science questions that we can’t even ask right this moment,” Heck stated. “That’s actually the ability of pattern return.”
Bennu is constituted of most of the similar supplies as meteorites that sometimes slam into Earth — which scientists discover vital to review, too, as a result of they might help us perceive what existed on the daybreak of the photo voltaic system. However in these pure experiments, it’s tough to tell apart what was already current within the meteorites’ materials from what was deposited after they entered Earth’s environment and biosphere, Heck defined. To keep away from this downside, the Bennu pattern was gathered immediately from the asteroid and punctiliously sealed to keep away from alteration by exterior supplies, even as soon as it arrived on Earth.
Bennu was chosen for the OSIRIS-REx challenge due to its composition — which scientists may decide from observing the asteroid from a distance, in addition to research of comparable house rocks — but in addition as a result of it’s comparatively near Earth. “Each six years, Earth overtakes Bennu … so it’s a superb alternative to fly to Bennu with an affordable funding in propulsion,” Heck stated. “You don’t wish to go to an asteroid that’s too far-off, then come again — it simply prices a lot more cash to have a spacecraft that may try this.”
As a result of it’s a near-Earth asteroid, there’s additionally “non-zero likelihood” that Bennu may hit Earth, Heck stated, though that wouldn’t occur this century. “That was one other motivation, to get to know the properties and the build-up of Bennu in case one thing like Bennu [could] in some unspecified time in the future be on a collision course with Earth,” he informed Vox. “We might have a greater manner to determine methods to deflect it, if we all know what it’s made from.”
Heck expects that materials from the pattern will arrive to his analysis workforce in Chicago for examine later this yr. “Our labs are prepared for it,” he stated.